The Taking of Coamo

By Richard Harding Davis, War Corresondent

Richard Harding Davis on horsebackThis is the inside story of the surrender, during the Spanish War, of the town of Coamo.  It is written by the man to whom the town surrendered.  Immediately after the surrender this same man became Military Governor of Coamo.  He held office for fully twenty minutes.

Before beginning this story the reader must forget all he may happen to know of this particular triumph of the Porto Rican Expedition.  He must forget that the taking of Coamo has always been credited to Major-General James H. Wilson, who on that occasion commanded Captain Anderson's Battery, the Sixteenth Pennsylvania, Troop C of Brooklyn, and under General Ernst, the Second and Third Wisconsin Volunteers.  He must forget that in the records of the War Department all the praise, and it is of the highest, for this victory is bestowed upon General Wilson and his four thousand soldiers.  Even the writer of this, when he cabled an account of the event to his paper, gave, with every one else, the entire credit to General Wilson.  And ever since his conscience has upbraided him.  His only claim for tolerance as a war correspondent has been  that he always has stuck to the facts, and now he feels that in the sacred cause of history his friendship and admiration for General Wilson, that veteran of the Civil, Philippine, and Chinese Wars, must no longer stand in the way of his duty as an accurate reporter.  He no longer can tell a lie.  He must at last own up that he himself captured Coamo.

Battery B, 4th Artillery shelling a blockhouse at Coamo
On the morning of the 9th of August, 1898, the Sixteenth Pennsylvania Volunteers arrived on the outskirts of that town.  In order to get there they had spent the night in crawling over mountain trails and scrambling through streams and ravines.  It was General Wilson's plan that by this flanking night march the Sixteenth Pennsylvania would reach the road leading from Coamo to San Juan in time to cut off the retreat of the Spanish garrison, when General Wilson, with the main body, attacked it from the opposite side.

At seven o'clock in the morning General Wilson began the frontal attack by turning loose the artillery on a block-house, which threatened his approach, and by advancing the Wisconsin volunteers.  The cavalry he sent to the right to capture Los Banos.  At eight o'clock, from where the main body rested, two miles from Coamo, we could hear the Sixteenth Pennsylvania open its attack and instantly become hotly engaged.  The enemy returned the fire fiercely, and the firing from both sides at once became so severe that it was evident the Pennsylvania Volunteers either would take the town without the main body, or that they would greatly need its assistance.  The artillery was accordingly advanced one thousand yards and the infantry was hurried forward.  The Second Wisconsin approached Coamo along the main road from Ponce, the Third Wisconsin through fields of grass to the right of the road, until the two regiments met at the ford by which the Banos road crosses the Coamo River.  But before they met, from a position near  the artillery, I had watched through my glasses the Second Wisconsin with General Ernst at its head advancing along the main road, and as, when I saw them, they were near the river, I guessed they would continue across the bridge and that they soon would be in the town.

As the firing from the Sixteenth still continued, it seemed obvious that General Ernst would be the first general officer to enter Coamo, and to receive its surrender.  I had never seen five thousand people surrender to one man, and it seemed that, if I were to witness that ceremony, my best plan was to abandon the artillery and, as quickly as possible, pursue the Second Wisconsin.  I did not want to share the spectacle of the surrender with my brother correspondents, so I tried to steal away from the three who were present.  They were Thomas F. Millard, Walstein Root of the Sun, and Horace Thompson.  By dodging through a coffee central I came out a half mile from them and in advance of the Third Wisconsin.  There I encountered two "boy officers," Captain John C. Breckenridge and Lieutenant Fred.  S. Titus, who had temporarily abandoned their thankless duties in the Commissariat Department in order to seek death or glory in the skirmish-line.  They wanted to know where I was going, and when I explained, they declared that when Coamo surrendered they also were going to be among those present.

So we slipped away from the main body and rode off as an independent organization.  But from the bald ridge, where the artillery was still hammering the town, the three correspondents and Captain Alfred Paget, Her Majesty's naval attache, observed our attempt to steal a march on General Wilson's forces, and pursued us and soon overtook us.

We now were seven, or to be exact, eight, for with Mr. Millard was "Jimmy," who in times of peace sells papers in Herald Square, and in times of war carries Mr. Millard's copy to the press post.  We were much nearer the ford than the bridge, so we waded the "drift" and started on a gallop along the mile of military road that lay between us and Coamo.  The firing from the Sixteenth Pennsylvania had slackened, but as we advanced it became sharper, more insistent, and seemed to urge us to greater speed.  Across the road were dug rough rifle-pits which had the look of having been but that moment abandoned.  What had been intended for the breakfast of the enemy was burning in pots over tiny fires, little heaps of cartridges lay in readiness upon the edges of each pit, and an arm-chair, in which a sentry had kept a comfortable lookout, lay sprawling in the middle of the road.  The huts that faced it were empty.  The only living things we saw were the chickens and pigs in the kitchen-gardens.  On either hand was every evidence of hasty and panic-stricken flight. We rejoiced at these evidences of the fact that the Wisconsin Volunteers had swept all before them.  Our rejoicings were not entirely unselfish.  It was so quiet ahead that some one suggested the town had already surrendered.  But that would have been too bitter a disappointment, and as the firing from the further side of Coamo still continued, we refused to believe it, and whipped the ponies into greater haste.  We were now only a quarter of a mile distant from the built-up portion of Coamo, where the road turned sharply into the main street of the town.

Captain Paget, who in the absence of the British military attache on account of sickness, accompanied the army as a guest of General Wilson, gave way to thoughts of etiquette.

"Will General Wilson think I should have waited for him?" he shouted.  The words were jolted out of him as he rose in the saddle.  The noise of the ponies' hoofs made conversation difficult.  I shouted back that the presence of General Ernst in the town made it quite proper for a foreign attache to enter it.

"It must have surrendered by now," I shouted.  It's been half an hour since Ernst crossed the bridge."

At these innocent words, all my companions tugged violently at their bridles and shouted "Whoa!"

"Crossed the bridge?" they yelled.  "There is no bridge!  The bridge is blown up!  If he hasn't crossed by the ford, he isn't in the town!"

Then, in my turn, I shouted "Whoa!"

But by now the Porto Rican ponies had decided that this was the race of their lives, and each had made up his mind that, Mexican bit or no Mexican bit, until he had carried his rider first into the town of Coamo, he would not be halted.  As I tugged helplessly at my Mexican bit, I saw how I had made my mistake.  The volunteers, on finding the bridge destroyed, instead of marching upon Coamo had turned to the ford, the same ford which we had crossed half an hour before they reached it.  They now were behind us.  Instead of a town which had surrendered to a thousand American soldiers, we, seven unarmed men and Jimmy, were being swept into a hostile city as fast as the enemy's ponies could take us there.

Breckenridge and Titus hastily put the blame upon me.

"If we get into trouble with the General for this," they shouted, "it will be your fault.  You told us Ernst was in the town with a thousand men."

I shouted back that no one regretted the fact that he was not more keenly than I did myself.

Titus and Breckenridge each glanced at a new, full-dress sword.

"We might as well go in," they shouted, "and take it anyway!" I decided that Titus and Breckenridge were wasted in the Commissariat Department.

The three correspondents looked more comfort, able.

"If you officers go in," they cried, "the General can't blame us," and they dug their spurs into the ponies.

"Wait!" shouted Her Majesty's representative.  "That's all very well for you chaps, but what protects me if the Admiralty finds out I have led a charge on a Spanish garrison?"

But Paget's pony refused to consider the feelings of the Lords of the Admiralty.  As successfully Paget might have tried to pull back a rowboat from the edge of Niagara.  And, moreover, Millard, in order that Jimmy might be the first to reach Ponce with despatches, had mounted him on the fastest pony in the bunch, and he already was far in the lead.  His sporting instincts, nursed in the pool-rooms of the Tenderloin and at Guttenburg, had sent him three lengths to the good.  It never would do to have a newsboy tell in New York that he had beaten the correspondents of the papers he sold in the streets; nor to permit commissioned officers to take the dust of one who never before had ridden on anything but a cable car.  So we all raced forward and, bunched together, swept into the main street of Coamo. It was gratefully empty.  There were no America soldiers, but, then, neither were there any Spanish soldiers.  Across the street stretched more rifle-pits and barricades of iron pipes, but in sight there was neither friend nor foe.  On the stones of the deserted street the galloping hoofs sounded like the advance of a whole regiment of cavalry.  Their clatter gave us a most comfortable feeling.  We almost could imagine the towns-people believing us to be the Rough Riders themselves and fleeing before us.

And then, the empty street seemed to threaten an ambush. We thought hastily of sunken mines, of soldiers crouching behind the barriers, behind the houses at the next corner, of Mausers covering us from the latticed balconies overhead.  Until at last, when the silence had become alert and menacing, a lonely man dashed into the middle of the street, hurled a white flag in front of us, and then dived headlong under the porch of a house.  The next instant, as though at a signal, a hundred citizens, each with a white flag in both hands, ran from cover, waving their banners, and gasping in weak and terror-shaken tones, "Vivan los Americanos."

We tried to pull up, but the ponies had not yet settled among themselves which of us had won, and carried us to the extreme edge of the town, where a precipice seemed to invite them to stop, and we fell off into the arms of the Porto Ricans.  They brought us wine in tin cans, cigars, borne in the aprons and mantillas of their womenfolk, and demijohns of native rum.  They  were abject, trembling, tearful.  They made one instantly forget that the moment before he had been extremely frightened.

One of them spoke to me the few words of Spanish with which I had an acquaintance.  He told me he was the Alcalde, and that he begged to surrender into my hands the town of Coamo.  I led him instantly to one side.  I was afraid that if  I did not take him up he would surrender to Paget or to Jimmy.  I bade him conduct me to his official residence.  He did so, and gave me the key to the cartel, a staff of office of gold and ebony, and the flag of the town, which he had hidden behind his writing-desk.  It was a fine Spanish flag with the coat of arms embroidered in gold.  I decided that, with whatever else I might part, that flag would always be mine, that the chance of my again receiving the surrender of a town of five thousand people was slender, and that this token would be wrapped around me in my coffin.  I accordingly hid it in my poncho and strapped it to my saddle.  Then I appointed a hotel-keeper, who spoke a little English, as my official interpreter and told the Alcalde that I was now Military  Governor, Mayor, and Chief of Police, and that I wanted the seals of the town.  He gave me a rubber stamp with a coat of arms cut in it, and I wrote myself three letters, which, to insure their safe arrival, I addressed to three different places, and stamped them with the rubber seals.  In time all three reached me, and I now have them as documentary proof of the fact that for twenty minutes I was Military Governor and Mayor of Coamo.

During that brief administration I detailed Titus and Breckenridge to wigwag the Sixteenth Pennsylvania that we had taken the, town, and that it was now safe for them to enter.  In order to compromise Paget they used his red silk handkerchief.  Root I detailed to conciliate the inhabitants by drinking with every one of them.  He tells me he carried out my instructions to the letter.  I also settled one assault and battery case, and put the chief offender under arrest.  At least, I told the official interpreter to inform him that he was under arrest, but as I had no one to guard him  he tired of being under arrest and went off  to celebrate his emancipation from the rule of Spain.

My administration came to an end in twenty minutes, when General Wilson rode into Coamo at the head of his staff and three thousand men.  He wore a white helmet, and he looked the part of the conquering hero so satisfactorily that I forgot I was Mayor and ran out into the street to snap a picture of him.  He looked greatly surprised and asked me what I was doing in his town.  The tone in which he spoke caused me to decide that, after all, I would not keep the flag of Coamo.  I pulled it off my saddle and said: "General, it's too long a story to tell you now, but here is the flag of the town. It's the first Spanish flag," -and it was - "that has been captured in Porto Rico."

General Wilson smiled again and accepted the flag.  He and about four thousand other soldiers think it belongs to them.  But the truth will out.  Some day the bestowal on the proper persons of a vote of thanks from Congress, a pension, or any other  trifle, like prize-money, will show the American people to whom that flag really belongs.

I know that in time the glorious deed of the seven heroes of Coamo, or eight, if you include "Jimmy" will be told in song and story.  Some one else will write the song.  This is the story.


Davis, Richard Harding, Notes of a War Correspondent. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910) 101-112.

Freidel, Frank, The Splendid Little War. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958) 274 (artillery image).

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